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Penguins' Chad Ruhwedel helps stabilize injuy-riddled defensive unit

Jonathan Bombulie
| Friday, Nov. 3, 2017, 8:09 p.m.
The Penguins' Chad Ruhwedel battles for the puck with the Jets' Bryan Little earlier this season.
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The Penguins' Chad Ruhwedel battles for the puck with the Jets' Bryan Little earlier this season.
The Penguins' Chad Ruhwedel battles the Jets' Nikolaj Ehlers along the boards in the third period Oct. 26, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Getty Images
The Penguins' Chad Ruhwedel battles the Jets' Nikolaj Ehlers along the boards in the third period Oct. 26, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.

By winning in Edmonton on Wednesday night and picking up a point in the standings for an overtime loss Thursday in Calgary, the Penguins have kept a five-game, 10-day western road trip from circling the drain.

Perhaps no skater has been more responsible for keeping things from falling apart than defenseman Chad Ruhwedel.

Starting the season as the team's seventh defenseman, Ruhwedel has given the Penguins a capable performer at a position where injuries were stretching the depth chart thin. They've been playing without top-six defensemen Matt Hunwick and Justin Schultz, who are recovering from concussions.

Ruhwedel has averaged about 18 minutes per game on the road trip.

Most importantly, Ruhwedel has helped in an area where the Penguins needed it most: puck possession at even strength.

In the first four games of the trip, the Penguins outshot their opponents 56-40 when Ruhwedel was on the ice in five-on-five situations.

That's par for the course with Ruhwedel this season. When it comes to shot-based stats, he has been the most effective player on the team's blue line by a long shot.

When Ruhwedel has been on the ice, the Penguins have taken 54.9 percent of the game's even-strength shot attempts. The next-best figure on the team belongs to Ian Cole at 51.6. Kris Letang, by comparison, is at 47.7.

Ruhwedel's shot-attempt ratio has been 55 percent or better for each of the first four games of the road trip, which concludes Saturday night in Vancouver.

“I think when you look at our team, we're at our best when we get back to pucks and we advance the puck as quickly and efficiently as we can,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We get out of our end zone, and we get the puck into our forwards' hands as quickly as we can. When we talk about playing the game fast, that's one of the specifics of that type of a game and Chad's the type of guy that can do that.

“He gets back to pucks because of his mobility. He has decent vision. He can make a first pass and help us get out of our end zone, and that's an important aspect of our team game.”

A strong performance on the road trip has been part of a yearlong climb up the depth chart for Ruhwedel, who was largely an unknown when he signed with the Penguins in July of 2016.

After bouncing between the NHL and AHL in the Buffalo Sabres organization for the first three years of his career, the 27-year-old San Diego native quickly made an impression on the Penguins with a strong showing in Wilkes-Barre at the start of last season.

By Christmas, his minor league days were pretty much over.

“It all starts in Wilkes,” Ruhwedel said. “You've got to prove yourself there and play good minutes, keep getting better and make sure people are noticing you. Do all the little things right. This organization is really good about noticing the good things players do. I was fortunate enough to have that happen to me last year.”

In June, he got a strong vote of confidence from the Penguins, a two-year, one-way contract that pays him the same whether he's in the NHL or AHL.

The next step is to lock down a top-six spot for good, which, of course, won't be easy. It would require Ruhwedel beating out an entrenched NHL player for the job.

Add up all the pluses in his column, though — a positive career trajectory, skating ability that fits his team's style of play, the best analytics on the team — and it no longer seems like an unrealistic goal.

“It's all just a big process,” Ruhwedel said, “and it helps being in the right place at the right time.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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